The African mask was never meant to exist in isolation, in a carefully lighted niche in a museum. The mask is part of an entire outfit that would cover – and obscure – the person behind it. That way, the wearer could become the figure represented in the mask.
Nor would the figure be still. Most masks were used as part of ceremonies, often ritual dances, so the mask would be only part of the presentation. The music, the movement of the dancer, the flying raffia or cloth pieces, the rattle of beads and bone fragments would all contribute to the impression. In the photo below, one dancer wears a fish mask, another a crocodile mask. The extensive raffia covers every part of what used to be the person the spectators knew well.
Masks have many purposes, and their design and function varies from one area to another. Some show rank, such as chief or shaman; others represent powerful spirits; others embody ideals of masculinity or feminity as seen by that culture; some inspire terror.
Only a select few people, usually men, can wear the masks. They must be initiated and trained, and their training must remain secret. The wearer of the mask must be able to accept the challenge of becoming a medium between this world and the world of the spirits and ancestors in order to bring harmony between them. He must be able to channel the very life energy of the bush in order to bring it to his people.
The mask shown in the photo on the left represents a hawk spirit. Every line and pattern in the mask has a specific meaning to those initiated in its use. The dark and light checkerboard pattern represents the balance of opposites – male and female, night and day, life and death, flight and stillness.
An excellent reference work is African Masks: the Barbier-Mueller Collection, which includes a color photo and description of each mask as well as a picture of a similar mask as it was worn by a masked dancer. The masks in the collection come from West Africa, especially Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Senegal, as well as Central Africa, especially the Congo.
In the story, Komo, the shaman/chief has made the mask that he wears, but his mind has split between the powerful figure who stands at the center of the wheel of life when he is masked, and the mere mortal who exists when he takes off the mask. Eventually, he feels the unmasked face is not really his at all.
It’s hard for us to understand the power of the masks in many societies around the world because we have so little experience with them. The closest we have is ritual clothing, such as wedding gowns, priest’s vestments, judge’s robes, police uniforms, etc. Occasionally, we enjoy masquerade parties because they give us the chance to “wear a different face” and therefore act like a different person. The same is true of Halloween masks. The controversy over French Muslim women wearing a full face veil is at least partly connected to our feeling that when the face is hidden, the person is hidden, and we fear what we can’t see.
Of course, it can be argued that the use of makeup is a form of mask in that it alters and in some ways protects the person behind the makeup. So is jewelry, and clothing. Different clothes can make you see yourself differently. Hence the saying “Clothes make the man.”
But none of these reach the level of intensity of the masks used in Africa, Oceania, South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Northwest. Combined with dances, extravagant body covers, sometimes stilts, these masked figures truly become more than human.